Monday, June 13, 2016

Tasting Columbia Crest's Crowd Sourced Cabernet

You get a vote, and you get a vote ... photo courtesy KQED
I've only liked 4 of the last 12 highest-grossing films of the year. I have never owned the top selling album of any of the last 35 years. So I'm not a great candidate to enjoy a Crowd Sourced Cabernet.

But I was interested in Columbia Crest's crowd-sourced winemaking project: not only to write a story about it two years ago, but also to be a voter in the crowd.

A brief description: Columbia Crest devoted an acre of good Cabernet vines in Washington's Horse Heaven Hills and allowed ordinary people to vote on viticultural and winemaking decisions. It's a great way to get people to feel involved in the project. What voter wouldn't be curious about how the final product tastes? I went to a Kickstarter-funded movie last week and people in the audience cheered during the credits when they saw their name roll by, and they didn't even get to help make edits.

None of the wine votes that I took part in went my way, of course.


Columbia Crest says, "You told us to harvest at night, create a wine with a lot of complexity yet soft tannins, and age it 16 months in 30% new oak barrels." I get the harvest-at-night part, but if it were up to me they would have left more fruit on the vines and picked earlier. I like "a lot of complexity" -- who doesn't? -- but achieving that with "soft tannins" requires a bit of fantasy. It's like asking for a woman with a gymnast's waist and a porn star's curves. It's all in how the questions are asked, though: Who votes for less complexity? Who votes for not-soft tannins?

Actually, I did vote for the latter. But I also voted for Bernie Sanders, so what did I expect?

This is the irony of critics: not just wine critics, and not just minor ones like myself. Robert Parker has a big fanbase because lots of people like the wines he does. His tastes are fairly extreme, though, so I doubt Parker-style wines would make it through crowdsourcing ("Shall we leave the grapes on the vines until all the moisture is gone from them and every other grape within 100 miles has been picked?")

It's the same for every media: no crowd would have chosen the plot of Breaking Bad. ("Shall Jesse's girlfriend give up drugs, or choke on her own vomit?")

In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, you can't trust the products with the highest consumer ratings online. The crowd is, even for the crowd's taste, often wrong.

So I'm drinking the wine now, and it's ... well it's ... meh.

Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Crowd Sourced Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 has a nice lifted aroma, with dried berry notes and a slight floral touch. The acidity is decent, and there's reasonable fruit. It's 14.5% alcohol, which is middle of the road in American Cabernet. The aroma is the highlight; on the palate it's a little bland. I poured myself a glass to drink, not just to taste, but I lost interest in it and didn't finish it.

My wife thinks it's a little too strong, but she's not a Cab drinker, nor did she vote on the project. The wine might be different if the voter base was all wine drinkers or all Americans, which technically it could have been, but in fact the voters self-selected: it was people interested enough in the Cabernet to take part.

At $30 a bottle, it's not a bad price for premium Washington Cabernet. It's also not a bad way to discover how mainstream your own tastes are. Parker's not mainstream, neither is Spectator: I'm not sure there is a wine critic or publication that tries to reflect mainstream tastes rather than telling people what they should be drinking. That's a critic's job, and that's important, because without them you wouldn't have seen "Breaking Bad." This is not a "Breaking Bad" wine; it's more like CNN Headline News.

If you're one of the people who voted, you might as order it from the winery.

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5 comments:

Bob Henry said...

Wait? What!

You never bought Fleetwood Mac's (1977) "Rumours" album?

Or Pink Floyd's (1980) "The Wall" album?

Not. Even. Once.

Did you grow up living with the Amish?

Bob Henry said...

"So I'm drinking the wine now, and it's ... well it's ... meh."

As Malcolm Gladwell related in his book titled "Outliers," social scientists attribute expertise to ten years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

These Columbia Crest crowds comprise zero deliberate practice dilettantes.

You recall this quip:

"A camel is a horse designed by a committee."

You have quite a Horse Heaven Hills mashup wine there.

Bruce7b said...

Wouldn't you say that Cellartracker reflects mainstream taste without telling you what to drink?

W. Blake Gray said...

Bruce: I suppose it should in theory. It is a self-selected population of people who comment, but the same is true of the Columbia Crest project.

Bruce7b said...

Blake: There is an old military proverb that might apply: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good". Yes, the wine drinkers that are posting their reviews and scores on cellartracker are self selected. Short of a scientific experiment not sure what other kind of selection you would have. But unlike the Columbia Crest project, most of the users of Cellartracker have a long term involvement with the site and they are not anonymous . For each user a "member since" date is shown and these dates are often 10 years and more. Most users inventory their wine on the site, to keep track of drink range dates, and when a bottle is removed from inventory it is typically reviewed and scored. Can't imagine a better way for wine blog readers to get a mostly unbiased review of wines from wine drinkers with similar experience/involvement with wine.

It is not perfect--many readers have bought into the anti-Parker line about taste preferences in wine being way too "subjective" and thus beyond the ability of wine drinkers to affix a usable numerical rating to a wine.